Turkey expert writes: Strongman Erdogan’s weak state
In a new analysis for Foreign Policy, the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program director Gonul Tol argues that Erdogan’s consolidation of power has weakened the ability of state institutions to respond to crises.
Tol addresses declarations by those in the West that autocracies, with all their centralized power, are quicker and more able to respond to crises by pointing to Erdogan’s inability to mobilize his country’s resources and dispatch his large army to the earthquake-hit cities in the vital early hours of the disaster.
Tol argues that the state’s sluggish response was not for a lack of resources, but a direct consequence of intentionally weakened institutions. The author writes that for strongmen like Erdogan, whose power is derived from a cult of personality, to centralize their power they must erode institutions: “Erdogan, in his 20 years at the helm, has hollowed out the country’s institutions and placed incompetent loyalists in key positions to centralize power in his own hands. This made Erdogan the strongest man in the country but left the state barely functioning.”
The need for a swift response after the earthquakes that struck ten provinces brought to light the extent of the deterioration in state institutions. Erdogan had shifted the responsibility of disaster relief solely onto Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), an institution rife with problems of its own. Brought under the helm of AFAD, structures such as the military, which is typically tasked with disaster response, were left paralyzed.
AFAD itself was ill-equipped to handle the power it was allowed. Tol notes that the President “stuffed AFAD with incompetent loyalists and made it part of a network of faith-based aid organizations to push the narrative that Erdogan was the ‘protector of Muslims’ around the world.” To make matters worse, AFAD’s budget was small, its personnel too few, and its disaster response department was being led by a theologian with no relevant experience. In this centralized system, all incoming rescue teams or humanitarian aid — whether they be domestic or international, by the state or non-governmental — were dependent on AFAD permission or coordination to enter the crisis zone. Tol says, “Tens of thousands of victims died because Erdogan and those in his inner circle did not want anyone, particularly the military, to outshine the agency he had created.”
Tol concludes her argument by emphasizing that Erdogan has time and again chosen to use state resource to enrich those in his immediate circle instead of serving the public, and that the earthquake response is simply the latest and most devastating example of this tendency.
However, Tol is cautiously optimistic that the earthquakes that revealed the government’s ineptitude and compounded existing economic and social problems will help bring Erdogan’s rule to an end in the upcoming general elections.